Rotavirus: leading cause of childhood diarrhoea and vomiting
Most babies and children will suffer from
gastroenteritis (diarrhoea and vomiting) at some point. The
most common cause is a virus called rotavirus. In fact,
rotavirus is so wide-spread that 95 per cent of children
will have had a bout of rotavirus gastroenteritis by the
time they reach their 5th birthday.
Symptoms of rotavirus infection include watery diarrhoea, vomiting, fever and pain. The diarrhoea and vomiting can be intense, and a baby or child can typically have 20 episodes of vomiting and diarrhoea in just 24 hours. The symptoms can last for up to a week, sometimes longer.
While most cases of infection will resolve with rest and steps to keep fluids up, there is a risk of dehydration. Children with severe cases of dehydration may need hospital treatment. Rotavirus gastroenteritis is more severe in younger children, and severe gastroenteritis is common in babies aged 6 months or younger.
In England and Wales 18,000 children per year are hospitalised due to rotavirus with a typical stay ranging from 2 to 6 days.
Nearly a quarter of all children under 5 in the UK will visit their GP due to rotavirus. However, doctors do not routinely test for rotavirus, so few parents have ever heard of it. The Department of Health has recognised that research and investment into preventing rotavirus gastroenteritis should be stepped up.
How Rotavirus spreads
Rotavirus spreads easily and is highly infectious, which
can make it difficult to control. Infectious virus has been
found in stools and vomit, so nappy changing and the mess
of diarrhoea and vomiting offers a prime opportunity for
spread. The virus can be present up to 2 days before a
child shows any sign of infection.
Rotavirus can also live for days outside the body allowing it to spread through contact with objects.Toys, nursery equipment, even door handles can all carry the virus. This means that children who are regularly exposed to groups of other children, such as at nurseries, children’s wards or even the family home, are at risk of passing on the infection.
Rotavirus infection is most common during the winter months.
The main aim of treatment for gastroenteritis is to
avoid dehydration by giving the child frequent small sips
of water. Babies who are breastfeeding or bottle feeding
should still be offered a feed. Older children can be
offered food, but refusal is not a cause for concern. You
may be advised by your doctor or NHS Direct to add a
rehydration formula to water.
NHS Direct encourages parents or carers of babies or children showing signs of dehydration, or with very severe diarrhoea and sickness to contact their GP urgently or call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47.
Signs of dehydration include:
- little or no urine
- dark urine
- dry flushed skin
- dry eyes
- dry mouth
- clammy hands and feet
- sunken eyes
- confusion and irritability
- sunken soft spot/fontanel (in babies only)
Limiting the spread
Good hygiene is the most important way of limiting the
spread of rotavirus, and some key steps are advised below.
However, even with good standards of hygiene, rotavirus
spreads very easily, so if your child becomes infected, it
is no reflection on how clean you are.
Good hygiene: Hand washing with soap and water or disinfectant should be done before eating and food preparation and after using the toilet, changing nappies, handling soiled clothing and linen, cleaning up diarrhoea or vomit, and helping children with going to the toilet.
You can also prevent the spread of rotavirus by:
- washing linen and clothing soiled with diarrhoea and vomit on as hot a wash as possible
- keeping soiled washing away from the rest of your washing
- cleaning toilet seats, flush handles, door handles and taps with soapy water or disinfectant
- cleaning toilets and potties with bleach after use
- cleaning shared objects such as toys with disinfectant
If your child has the symptoms of rotavirus gastroenteritis, keep them away from other children until 48 hours after symptoms have stopped.